Police said today they were working on the hypothesis that missing mother-of-two Nicola Bulley fell into a river while walking her dog. Here we look at some of the key questions still surrounding her disappearance as the search continues. Ms Bulley, 45, has not been seen since Friday, January 27 when she took a routine walk with her dog Willow along a path by the side of the River Wyre in the village of St Michael’s, Lancashire, just after 9am. It was a journey the pair had made many times before. Since Friday, all that physically remains of that walk are Ms Bulley’s beloved spaniel Willow, who was found unleashed, as well as a dog lead, harness and Ms Bulley’s mobile phone, which were found on a bench overlooking the river.
Why was the ‘bone dry’ dog and not wearing a harness?
Witnesses have been reported to have said they found Willow, who was not wearing a harness or lead, to have been “bone dry” but in an “agitated” state near the bench where Ms Bulley’s effects were found.
Today Superintendent Sally Riley from Lancashire Police urged against speculation, but said it was “possible” that an “issue” with Ms Bulley’s dog may have led her to the water’s edge.
It’s not uncommon for dog walkers to get into difficulty when attempting to rescue their beloved pet from a body or water. Often the animal itself is eventually able to swim to safety, but the consequences for the owner can be fatal.
However, if as reported Willow was “dry” it would seem as if she had not entered the water, raising the question as to how Nicola got into the water.
Superintendent Riley said: “We assume the dog didn’t get into the river, but we don’t know why Nicola may have if she did.”
“There may have been an issue with the dog that led her to the water’s edge, she puts her phone down to go and deal with the dog momentarily, and Nicola may have fallen in.”
There are also questions surrounding cocker spaniel Willow. The central mystery being why the pet wasn’t wearing a harness which Willow usually appeared to wear in photos taken by Ms Bulley uploaded to her Strava account – even if the lead had been removed.
How did Ms Bulley fall in the river if it was a location she knew well?
The area of the River Wyre close to the bench does have signage warning of deep water and the banks of the waterway at this section are steep. However, speaking this week Ms Bulley’s father Ernest said: “There was no sign of a slip or falling in so our thought was ‘has somebody got her’?
It’s clear the route was one his daughter knew well from her Strava exercise-logging app account so would she not have realized the danger of the steep banks on that stretch of the walk?
Ms Bulley, who worked as a mortgage adviser, was logged into a conference call at the time she disappeared with her microphone and camera switched off. Colleagues at the firm where she worked confirmed this was a routine occurrence as well.
At 9.01am Ms Bulley sent an email to her boss, before logging on to a Microsoft Teams call at 9.01am. She was seen by a second witness at 9.10am – the last known sighting. By 9.30am, Ms Bulley’s Teams call had ended, but her phone remained connected to the call.
Police believe there is a 10-minute window between her last being seen and from police tracing telephony records of her mobile phone not leaving the bench it was placed on overlooking the river, at 9.20am, officers believe she may have fallen into the river. But the cause remains a mystery.
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Where is Ms Bulley’s body if she fell into the river?
The River Wyre from St Michael’s to the coast at Fleetwood is approximately 12 miles long and just below St Michael’s it changes from a freshwater river to a tidal estuarine one.
Lancashire Constabulary have deployed drones (both aerial and underwater), helicopters and police search dogs as part of the major missing person operation.
They have been assisted by the Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, as well as the Bowland Pennine Mountain Rescue team and the North West Underwater Search Team.
However, despite the significant resources deployed, if the emergency services are tragically searching for a body, they are yet to have found one.
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Timeline of Nicola Bulley disappearance so far.
– January 27
The 45-year-old dropped her daughters – aged six and nine – off at school in the morning before walking her dog, Willow, in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire.
Lancashire Police have said the mortgage adviser, from nearby Inskip, had been walking along a path beside the River Wyre just before 9am.
She was seen by a dog walker who knew her at around 8.50am, and their pets interacted briefly before they parted ways, according to the force.
At 8.53am, Ms Bulley sent an email to her boss, before logging on to a Microsoft Teams call at 9.01am.
She was seen by a second witness at 9.10am – the last known sighting.
By 9.30am, Ms Bulley’s Teams call had ended, but her phone remained connected to the call.
Approximately five minutes later, another dog walker found her phone on a bench beside the river, with Willow darting between the two.
At 10.50am, Ms Bulley’s family and the school attended by her children were told about her disappearance.
Lancashire Constabulary launched an investigation into Ms Bulley’s whereabouts on the same day and appealed for witnesses to contact them.
– January 28
Lancashire Constabulary deployed drones, helicopters and police search dogs as part of the major missing person operation.
They were assisted by the Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service, as well as the Bowland Pennine Mountain Rescue team and the North West Underwater Search Team.
– January 29
Local residents held a meeting at the village hall to organize a search for Ms Bulley at 10.30am on Sunday, according to reports from The Mirror, and around 100 people joined the search.
Police urged volunteers to exercise caution, describing the river and its banks as “extremely dangerous” and saying that activity in these areas presented “a genuine risk to the public”.
– January 30
Superintendent Sally Riley from Lancashire Constabulary said the police were “keeping a really open mind about what could have happened”, and that they were not treating Ms Bulley’s disappearance as suspicious.
– January 31
Lancashire Constabulary spoke with a potential witness – a man who had been walking a small white fluffy dog near the River Wyre at the time of Ms Bulley’s disappearance.
Her family released a statement saying they had been “overwhelmed by the support” in their community, and that her daughters were “desperate to have their mummy back home safe”.
– February 1
Ms Bulley’s parents, Ernest and Dot Bulley, spoke to The Mirror about the “horror” they faced over the possibility of never seeing her again.
Her father told the newspaper: “We just dread to think we will never see her again, if the worst came to the worst and she was never found, how will we deal with that for the rest of our lives.”
– February 2
Lancashire Constabulary spoke with a second witness who they had identified with the help of the public using CCTV – but they told the police they did not have any further information to aid their inquiry.
Officers from the North West Police Underwater and Marine support unit searched the area close to where Ms Bulley’s mobile phone was found, while police divers scoured the River Wyre.
Meanwhile, Ms Bulley’s family appealed to the public for help tracing her.
Speaking with Sky News, her sister Louise Cunningham said: “There has got to be somebody who knows something and all we are asking is, no matter how small or big, if there is anything you remember that doesn’t seem right, then please reach out to the police.
“Get in touch and get my sister back.”
Ms Bulley’s father said his family hoped their interview would “spark a light” that would lead to her being found.
– February 3
Lancashire Police said they were working on the hypothesis that Ms Bulley may have fallen into the River Wyre.
Superintendent Sally Riley urged against speculation, but said it was “possible” that an “issue” with Ms Bulley’s dog may have led her to the water’s edge.
She urged the public to look out for items of clothing Ms Bulley was last seen wearing, and gave an extensive list.
Ms Bulley’s friends also shared heartfelt appeals via television interviews, including Emma White, who told the BBC that Ms Bulley’s daughters were continually asking where she was.